Oceania includes 14 Pacific island nations: the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Kingdom of Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. It is a largely peaceful region, with natural resources and mostly English-capable, educated populations.
While small in population (the largest PIC, Papua New Guinea, has an estimated population of 6.7 million), they control enormous maritime exclusive economic zones (EEZ) in the resource-rich Pacific. They are often referred to as “small island” states, but actually these countries are “large ocean” states. For example, with its maritime EEZ included, Kiribati alone covers as much of the planet’s surface as India. The countries of Oceania also form a potentially crucial voting bloc in international fora.
Needless to say, China has already realised the potential of Oceania and has built large embassies in every Pacific Island Country (PIC) with which it has diplomatic relations. India, meanwhile, only has representation in Fiji (mostly because of the Indian diaspora) and Papua New Guinea (because of trade and minerals). India routinely goes unrepresented at regional meetings held in the other 12 PICs.
However, there is clear willingness in Delhi to develop deeper ties with Oceania. Part of the reason is to enhance India’s strategic positioning and to broaden understanding of India’s views in international organisation. But it is also due to highly compatibles cultures and economies. Family-focused Pacific Islanders often feel very at home in India, and vice-versa.
In order to move forward with the natural and needed engagement, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Fiji in 2014 and hosted Oceania leaders in India in 2015. At the India meeting, a whole slate of proposals was made by India on ways to deepen relationships. Some were enacted immediately, to great effect, for example, Indian e-visas on arrival for many Pacific Island Countries. However, in many other areas, there has been little traction. The reason is simple. There are very few Pacific Islands representatives in New Delhi, and very little Indian representation in Oceania.
How can you get to know each other if you hardly ever meet? Your six-year-old niece probably knows more about Oceania after seeing the latest Disney movie Moana (which is all about Polynesian culture), than the average Indian international relations professor. And all most Pacific Islanders know about India is what they learn from Bollywood.
Pacific Island Countries, like India, are very family-focused and socially complex. Unless you spend time in the place, and get to know it, you don’t know who is really able to get things done. That is why, for example, China maintains a constant presence. If there is any official event or important social gathering, someone from the Chinese embassy will attend. Additionally, thousands of scholarships are given to Pacific Islanders to study in China. The Kingdom of Tonga has a population of around 100,000. This year alone, over 150 Tongans are studying in China. Many will return to positions of importance in Tonga. China may not be in direct competition with India in the region. For now. But the path to global superpowerdom, runs through this region. And China knows it.
Additionally, if a special interest lobby wants to pass, for example, an international treaty, they send a team of “educators” to Pacific Island Countries, and their position is put forward unchallenged in a series of workshops. That’s what happened with the Pacific support for the UN’s small arms treaty. Workshops were held promoting it, and with no explanation of why Delhi objected, support was easily garnered in the region, to the ultimate detriment of India.
There are strong and natural compatibilities between India and Pacific Island Countries. India would not displace existing international relationships, but rather complement them, strengthening the region, and in return helping India’s global position. But for that to happen, there needs to be more points of contact.
A key element would be ensuring there is more Indian diplomatic representation in Oceania. A good country to start would be the Kingdom of Tonga. The Kingdom of Tonga was never colonised and holds a unique soft power position in the South Pacific, and internationally.
An important initiative would be for India to help set up an “Oceania House” in Delhi. Most Pacific countries don’t have the funds to set up diplomatic representation in Delhi, however if a facility was set up for Pacific Island representatives to be based in India, it would give a turbo boost to PM Modi’s many initiatives.It will make it easier to develop bilateral understanding between India and the dozen plus Pacific Island Countries on international issues of mutual importance.
The extended royal family of Tonga has familial links to many of the other Pacific Island Countries, deliberately fostered as part of Tonga’s foreign policy over centuries. Additionally, there are long-standing and strong relations with the royal families of Japan, Thailand, Bhutan, the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Tonga’s soft power is unrivalled in the region.
The 2015 coronation of the present King of Tonga was attended by the Crown Prince and Princess of Japan. It was the first visit outside Japan for the Crown Princess in over two years, showing the depth of the relationship. India, meanwhile, simply sent someone from the high commission in Fiji. If India had sent someone from New Delhi, or had representation in Tonga, protocol would have allowed them better access not only to the core of the Tongan and regional establishments, but also to the visiting dignitaries. An easy opportunity was missed.
Indian representation in Oceania could also help open up trade, medical, and education opportunities that would benefit both sides.
A complementary and equally important initiative would be for India to help set up an “Oceania House” in Delhi. Most Pacific countries don’t have the funds to set up diplomatic representation in Delhi, however if a facility was set up for Pacific Island representatives to be based in India, it would give a turbo boost to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s many initiatives. The results would be to:
* Make it easier to clear roadblocks to implementing many of Modi’s proposals.
* Make it easier to develop bilateral understanding between India and the dozen plus Pacific Island Countries on international issues of mutual importance.
* Enable regional cohesion, allowing, for example, for Pacific Island Countries to work together on pooling purchases of Indian pharmaceuticals, etc.
* Give access to Pacific Island policymakers to the thinking behind various India policies on international issues.
* Facilitate Pacific Islanders to come study in India.
India and Oceania are like family members who meet only rarely at large, loud family reunions, never getting the time to truly get to know each other. The time has come spend time together, and see what we can do when we really put our minds to it.
Besides, how one performs with the “little portions” shows how much potential one deals with more complicated challenges.
Tevita Motulalo is the co-Founder and Director of Research of the Royal Oceania Institute, the Kingdom of Tonga’s independent think tank, and Senior Researcher at Gateway House think tank, Mumbai.